Do you remember when Jordan Henderson was a joke? It’s a sign of just how far the Liverpool captain has come that it can be hard to recall such a time, but there was a (sustained) period where he was the butt of most jokes directed at the club.
When Henderson arrived at Anfield in 2011 it’s easy to forget that he was one of the most exciting young players in England, who had been making a name for himself at Sunderland, often playing out wide. However, Henderson was never blessed with explosive pace and of course his running style was famously criticised by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson as an explanation for why his side passed on the then-Sunderland player before he joined their rivals.
"We looked at Jordan Henderson a lot and Steve Bruce was unfailingly enthusiastic about him.” Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography. "Against that we noticed that Henderson runs from his knees, with a straight back, while the modern footballer runs from his hips. We thought his gait might cause him problems later in his career."
Ferguson’s surprising criticism of Henderson perhaps resonated with the midfielder as he struggled to make an impact at times in the early stages of his career at Anfield.
For too long it seemed as if he was desperate to be a clone of his captain Steven Gerrard; trying to do everything, from long, raking passes to lung-busting last ditch tackles all the while trying to score from as far out as possible.
Simply put, the young man was doing too much, trying to fill the massive void left by the declining, and eventually departing, Gerrard. Liverpool weren’t the first club to struggle initially after losing a generational player and they won’t be the last, it’s just a shame that so much of the burden fell on Henderson's shoulders.
Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson (Reuters)
Image credit: Reuters
However, now the story is completely different. Henderson has completely fine-tuned his game with perfect efficiency. Under Jurgen Klopp, and with a bit of initial tweaking from Brendan Rodgers, he has worked out his role in this team and never tries to do too much.
Klopp’s team-based system suits him perfectly: it never demands too much from one individual and allows the collective to thrive thanks to the work of each member. It speaks volumes to Henderson’s character that he was able to mature and grow so that he could perform his role for the good of the team. That has meant at times playing deeper as well as in his more usual box-to-box role.
But the beauty of this current iteration of Henderson, what really elevates him compared to his peers, is the subtle additions he has brought back to his game. There’s a few more goals (as many league goals this season as the last three seasons combined) and some of his link-up play has been simply divine. The understanding he has with his forward players as well as his defenders (in particular Trent Alexander-Arnold) is evident in the gorgeous little first-time passes he has been playing over the last 18 months.
There’s an argument to be made that to some level Henderson has always had that ability - in which case it makes his changes even more impressive. Henderson showed restraint worthy of a captain to help his team before adding more creative freedom when he and his manager deemed it necessary.
Henderson, Alexander-Arnold - Liverpool-Wolverhampton - Premier League 2019/2020 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
Plus on a more mental side there’s a lot to be said for what Henderson brings to this team. While he may differ to Gerrard in many ways, his sheer stubbornness and force of will is eerily reminiscent of the former captain. Henderson never knows when he is beaten and that mentality evidently rubs off on his team. It’s no surprise that during Liverpool’s first Premier League defeat this season Henderson was missing and, whilst he did start both of the games against Atletico Madrid, it’s hard to blame him for his team’s loss against a side imprinted with Diego Simeone’s mentality.
And even though Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League and they won’t have an unbeaten Premier League season they are still on course to go down as one of the greatest teams in the modern era.
All this being led by the man who for so long looked as if he would be nothing more than a sad symbol of Liverpool’s banter era.
Steven Gerrard of Liverpool hands the Captain's arm band over to Jordan Henderson of Liverpool during the Capital One Cup Semi-Final first leg match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on January 20, 2015 in Liverpool, England
Image credit: Getty Images
This has been the season where he truly announced himself as one of the best midfielders around and his importance hasn’t diminished despite the expensive arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho.
He will have to wait a year for another crack at ending England’s trophy hurt, but he fully deserved to experience the joy of finally lifting the Premier League title and ending Liverpool’s long wait.
In the past there have been obvious standout candidates for the Player of the Year award but this season it feels as if there is actually a healthy debate. That debate lends itself well to someone like Henderson, an example of how vital every single individual cog is in a well-oiled machine.